Fabio Rambelli

Shugendō Romanticism and the Japanese Quest for Primitive Spirituality

Many studies of Shugendo from ethnographic perspectives share ethnography’s assumption that it deals with a core of ancient and timeless values and religiosity. More generally, a more or less explicit quest for a uniquely Japanese form of primitive and primordial spirituality is common to modern discourses about Japanese identity and cultural nationalism—in line with the premises of Western ethnography as one of the ideological cradles of nationalism. This paper will discuss three distinct approaches to Shugendo as a manifestation of primitive Japanese religiosity put forth by important authors: Okamoto Taro (1911-1996), Kubota Nobuhiro, and Nakazawa Shin’ichi. Next, I will trace a genealogy of such quest for primordial origins that predates contemporary discourses and modern ethnography, down to Edo period Kokugaku and medieval teachings about the original condition of beings. Finally, I will suggest some possible alternative directions for research on Shugendo, that might avoid ahistorical essentialization on the one hand and localist particularism on the other.